Gold has been treasured by humankind since the first nuggets were fashioned into jewelry over 6000 years ago. This precious metal is prized for its lustrous color, malleability, rarity, and its chemical stability (being one of the least reactive chemical elements, gold simply won’t oxidize, or rust). As a result, gold has been sought after not simply for decoration, but as a standard for monetary policy between nations.
Gold coins were once easily minted and circulated, and though global monetary policy no longer bases itself on the “gold standard,” gold has remained an important investment commodity and is often thought of as a “safe haven” for investors in economically turbulent times.
Because of gold’s intrinsic value and its prevalence in all manners of trade, gold has often been misrepresented. Thus knowing the difference between solid gold, pure gold, and gold plating can save you from making a big financial mistake.
Gold Purity and Alloys—A Basic Primer
Gold is valued not simply by its weight, but by its purity, or fineness, which is expressed in karats (kt.) or carats (ct.). This seemingly simple metric can be more complicated than first thought, thanks in part to the fact that pure gold is extremely soft, and unsuitable for the manufacture of most jewelry. As a result, pure gold is usually mixed, or alloyed, with other metals to make it more durable.
The most pure gold is 24 karat gold—all other gold will have a lesser karat value, and is in fact simply an alloy of gold and some other metal or metals. The karat value represents the ratio by weight of gold to the other metals. Since pure gold is 24 karats, all alloys are expressed as the parts gold per 24. For example, 18 parts gold out of a possible 24 is 18kt gold—75% pure, with 25% being other metals.
How to Identify Investment Gold
Gold purchased for investment is usually in the form of coins, wafers, or bars, and the best way to be certain you are getting what you pay for is to start with a reputable dealer—anything advertised as ‘discount’ should be immediately suspect. That said, there are a few ways to make sure gold coins or bullion is genuine.
Some counterfeiters have been known to plate other metals with gold, but with an atomic number of 72, gold is a very dense metal. While counterfeiters can easily match the weight of a specific coin or wafer, gold’s density makes it very difficult for them to match the size and the weight at the same time. Knowing the exact dimensions of the form of gold you are buying and verifying them with an accurate caliper is a good way to tell if a coin has been gold plated. The diameter and thickness of a counterfeited coin are likely to be slightly larger to compensate for the lower density of the added metal. This difference could be small, but any discrepancy is likely to indicate a fake.
Another way to spot fake gold is to test its magnetic properties, though to do this you’ll need a fairly powerful magnet. Gold is not magnetic, so if your coin sticks to the magnet, it isn’t all gold. But bear in mind that counterfeiters are aware of this as well, and they can add other non-metallic metals to the gold coin or ingot that wouldn’t be detectable with the magnet test. Results of the magnet test are either ‘yes, it’s fake’ or ‘I still don’t know for sure,’ so be sure to use another test if the magnet test is inconclusive.
As simple as it sounds, you should know the advertised weight of the piece you are buying and verify it with a good quality, precision scale. The numbers should not simply be close, but they should match perfectly. With 24 karat gold selling for well over $1000 per ounce, any discrepancy at all is cause for skepticism.
Other ways of verifying that your gold is genuine and pure include a fire assay and x-ray or ultrasound imaging. In a fire assay, a small amount of gold is melted and analyzed, and the purity can be assured to a highly accurate number. Usually reserved for larger quantities of investment gold, the fire assay may be required by some bullion dealers. Assays only cost about $35, and in a few days the testers will provide an official, signed report.
X-ray technology can determine what elements are present in the surface of a gold ingot, but may not detect voids. Ultrasound scans can reveal voids or other material inside a gold piece, though the procedure is not inexpensive.
By far, the best way to avoid owning gold that isn’t what it claims to be is to only purchase from a reputable dealer.
How to Identify Gold Jewelry
In 1906 the United States began to require purity marks on all gold and silver, and these marks remain a quick and easy way to check your jewelry’s gold content. Pure gold is too soft for serviceable jewelry, so you are likely to find “14k” or “18k,” which would indicate the piece is made of 14 karat or 18 karat gold respectively. European gold markings are often expressed in decimals. A mark of 583 would indicate 14 karat gold, or 58.3% pure gold.
Other marks to look for on gold jewelry include EP (electroplated), GEP (gold electroplated), RGP (rolled gold plated), and HGE (heavy gold electroplate), indicating that a piece is rolled, filled, or plated with gold. It is important to note that just because a piece doesn’t have one of these marks doesn’t mean it is solid gold. For a piece without markings, you’ll need to use a different method to determine the gold content.
Often you can tell if a piece is gold plated by close inspection. Discoloration, uneven coloring, or chipping can indicate that a piece is plated. If your jewelry discolors your skin, the gold is certainly fake.
An acid test is the most reliable test available, and you can purchase a kit and test the piece yourself, though interpreting the results can be difficult. Used mainly to determine the purity of gold jewelry, acid testing will reveal if a piece is gold plated.
Another way to determine if a piece of jewelry is solid gold is to perform a density test. You’ll need to accurately weigh your piece in grams, and immerse it in a graduated cylinder and read the number of millimeters of water it displaces. (The piece must be all gold, with no gemstones). Pure gold has a density of 19.3 grams per millimeter, so dividing the mass of your piece by the number of millimeters of water it displaces will give you a good gauge of its density. The closer the number is to 19.2, the more pure the gold.
Magnet testing can be used for jewelry, but it is often inconclusive as lower purity solid gold can have magnetic properties, and plated metals are often non-magnetic.
Diamond Estate Jewelry Buyers purchases many types of previously-owned gold jewelry set with high quality gemstones and diamond. If you are looking to sell gold jewelry, please contact us today for a free verbal appraisal and immediate cash offer.